Don't Let the Bully Win

The evolutionary psychology of dealing with bullies.

Posted Feb 08, 2018

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We all know a bully — someone who creates an atmosphere of intimidation. Someone whom everyone is afraid of, and who might transgress against any member of the community at the drop of a hat. Someone who talks badly about so many, and who creates such an air of intimidation that people are afraid to speak up.

You know one, right?

Bullying is not a new feature of humanity. People have had to deal with bullies in their communities pretty much forever. This post is dedicated to understanding the evolutionary psychology that underlies bullying behavior, along with how we can use our evolved nature to stop a bully in his or her tracks.

Bullies Show All the Hallmarks of the Dark Triad

An evolutionary perspective on human behavior makes it clear that there are multiple routes to success in life, for better or worse. On one hand, people who demonstrate genuine kindness tend to be appreciated by others (see Miller, 2000). We have a special appreciation for altruists in our communities, preferring them as social partners over others who don’t show the hallmarks of giving.

But even in a social world with many altruists, selfish or “dark” traits can emerge, and they can thrive — largely by exploiting the goodwill of the altruists among us.

In recent years, psychologists have paid a lot of attention to a cluster of traits that we refer to as the Dark Triad (see Jonason et al., 2013). These traits are:

  • Narcissism: The tendency to overly focus on oneself.
  • Psychopathy: The tendency to show no concern for the welfare of others.
  • Machiavellianism: The tendency to manipulate others and step on others for one’s own gains.

It turns out that these three traits tend to be positively intercorrelated, a fancy way of saying that people who score high on one of these traits tend to score high on the other two as well.

Think about what you’ve got when you have someone who is very high on all three of these traits: That would be someone who thinks that he or she is the center of everything, who cares little about others, and who exploits and manipulates others to get his or her way. In short, a dyed-in-the-wool bully.

Altruistic Punishment in Human Communities

Humans have evolved a variety of behavioral patterns designed to deal with all kinds of social contingencies. Research on the nature of transgressions in social communities has shown that when a bully emerges and transgresses against someone, it is common for others in the community to punish the bully (Fehr & Fischbacher, 2004). Such “altruistic punishment essentially places a check on the power of the bully. Research has also shown that the most effective kind of altruistic punishment comes from someone other than the victim — that is, for altruistic punishment to work best, the person who calls out the bully needs to be someone other than the victim.

Coalition Building and Beating the Bully

In fact, a core element of human evolution seems to be our proclivity to form coalitions to punish a transgressor in the community (Bingham & Souza, 2009). In an extraordinarily in-depth examination of the evolutionary origins of human social behavior, Bingham and Souza make a strong case that a critical junction came about when humans developed: (a) the tendency to form coalitions across kin lines, and (b) the ability to throw rocks with great speed and accuracy. Interestingly, these two features seemed to have evolved at about the same time. Looking at them together, one can easily see how these features allowed a group of individuals to exert power over one individual. This is a key part of the human evolutionary story.

Of course, it’s rare that we get our friends together to throw stones at someone these days. But humans do still regularly form coalitions and metaphorically throw stones.

Bottom Line

There have always been bullies, and probably always will be. From a personality psychology perspective, bullies may be thought of as exploitative individuals who show the hallmarks of the Dark Triad, caring little about others and seeing others as pawns in their own game. While people tend to vary on the traits that underlie this dark personality constellation, every now and then we run into someone high on each facet—a bona fide bully.

But for eons, humans have invoked third-party altruistic punishment to undermine the power of bullies. Further, we have formed coalitions, showing bullies that there is power in numbers. If there is a bully in your world, I advise that you make like our ancestors, form a coalition, and take collective action. Being nice is one thing — being exploited is another. Remember: The community does not belong to the bully — by definition, it belongs to all of us.


Bingham, P. M., & Souza, J. (2009). Death from a distance and the birth of a humane universe. Lexington, KY: BookSurge Publishing.

Fehr, Ernst; Fischbacher, Urs (2004). Third-party punishment and social norms. Evolution and Human Behavior. 25 (2): 63–87.

Jonason, P. K., Kaufman, S. B., Webster, G. D, & Geher, G. (2013). What lies beneath the Dark Triad Dirty Dozen: Varied relations with the Big Five. Individual Differences Research, 11, 81-90.

Miller G. F. (2000). The mating mind: How sexual choice shaped the evolution of human nature. London, Heineman.